Catalans form human chain in independence protest

By Tobias Buck in Barcelona

People hold torches during a rally as part of a campaign for independence from Spain, on the Fossar de les Moreres square in Barcelona on September 10, 2013, on the eve of the National Day of Catalonia, or Diada. Hundreds of thousands of Catalans are expected to unite on September 11 to create a 400-kilometre (250-mile) human chain as part of a campaign for independence from Spain which is fiercely opposed by Madrid. The chain will stretch across 86 cities, towns and villages along the coast of the northeastern region, passing landmarks such as the Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona and the city's Camp Nou football stadium©Getty

People hold torches during a rally on the Fossar de les Moreres square in Barcelona on Tuesday

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands on Wednesday to form a human chain stretching from the French border to the southern tip of the region, in the latest attempt to rally support for a historic break with Spain and the creation of an independent Catalan state.

Dubbed the Catalan Way, the mass demonstration offered fresh evidence of the recent surge in separatist sentiment in Catalonia, with one poll released on Wednesday showing that more than half the regional population now supports an independent state.

Relations between Barcelona and Madrid have been on a downward spiral for years, with Catalan dissent breaking out into the open a year ago on September 11, celebrated by Catalans as their national day, when more than 1m people took part in pro-independence rallies across the region.Catalan leaders used the mass protest to renew their call for a referendum to decide the region’s status, a move that is fiercely rejected by the central government in Madrid. Speaking hours before the human chain kicked off, Artur Mas, the Catalan president, urged both Spain and Europe to recognise Catalonia’s right to decide its own future. But he added a conciliatory note, saying he would seek a negotiated solution with the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy “until the end”.

“We are a distinct nation, with a distinct language, a distinct culture and distinct institutions,” said Ricard Gené, a senior member of the Catalan National Assembly, the grassroots body that organised Wednesday’s event. “Spain does not accept that it is a pluri-national country. That is the basis of our conflict.”

Close to 400,000 had registered for the Catalan Way, which criss-crossed the regional capital and passed Barcelona’s famous Camp Nou football stadium. The event is supposed to conjure up memories of the Baltic Way, a peaceful mass protest in 1989 that is credited with accelerating the breakaway of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from the Soviet Union.

The demonstration were held with the support of the Catalan government, which sought to mobilise its members and supporters for the rally. But the event also highlighted the delicate challenge faced by Mr Mas as he seeks to balance the increasingly heated popular mood with the conflicting demands of his political allies and his own desire to avoid a head-on collision with Madrid.

The Catalan leader repeatedly promised to hold a referendum on Catalonia’s political future, initially suggesting that the plebiscite would go ahead as early as next year. But in a surprise move last week, Mr Mas said he was ready to push back a referendum until 2016 – apparently to give more time to direct negotiations with Madrid over a new constitutional arrangement between Catalonia and Spain.

Francesc Homs, a senior adviser to the Catalan president, said the government was still open to a deal with Madrid. But he cautioned that Catalans were “tired” of tabling proposals for a new institutional and financial set-up, only to be rebuffed by politicians and judges in Madrid. “This time, they have to make a proposal. Then we will make a proposal. And then we will vote on it,” said Mr Homs.

Like other Catalan officials, Mr Homs is adamant that the conflict cannot be resolved simply through a new financial deal that would allow the region to keep more of its tax revenues. Madrid, he said, had “to change its chip” and accept that Catalans’ national aspiration was a growing, and genuine, phenomenon: “It is the people who are leading, and we the politicians who are marching behind.”

Mr Rajoy says he is ready to negotiate with Catalonia but has also made clear that Madrid will not allow Catalans to hold a referendum on independence. He and his allies argue such a plebiscite would violate the constitution, and insist they will do everything in their power to preserve the unity of the country.

Officials in Madrid say they are confident a deal can be done, adding they expect Catalan tempers to cool in the months after Wednesday’s demonstration. They see Mr Mas’s readiness to postpone a referendum as a sign the Catalan government is keen to avoid confrontation.

But analysts and officials in Barcelona offer a different explanation. They say Mr Mas remains determined to hold a referendum – or a regional election that would have the character of a referendum on independence – but that next year is too early. A vote in 2016, they add, will ensure that a plebiscite goes ahead after the next Spanish general election, which could leave Mr Rajoy either out of power or with a reduced majority in parliament. “Time works in favour of us,” says one Catalan leader.

Mr Gené argues that it is “probably too late” for a new deal with Spain, a country from which more and more Catalans say they feel estranged. “I see Spain with respect but with distance. I feel my country is Catalonia,” he said.